Melinda and I waited until Sunday morning to visit Mayfield, my hometown, whose downtown and its environs were wiped out by a powerful tornado Friday night. On Saturday, we didn’t want to get in the way of first responders and work crews trying to make the town as safe as possible.
The roof of a local candle factory collapsed, leading officials to fear many deaths. But on Sunday, the company said eight are dead, and eight are still missing, but more than 90 others have been found, according to the Lexington Herald-Leader.
A longtime member of First Presbyterian Church, my wife of going on 43 years wanted to attend a special joint service for the congregation and for members of nearby First Christian Church. The storm heavily damaged First Christian and all but destroyed First Presbyterian, the church of my youth.
Bundled up against the cold, about 75 people gathered in the asphalt parking lot between the two churches for a brief service led by the Rev. Milton West, a Mayfield native and pastor at First Christian. Everybody took communion, including members of the media, many of whom were still in town.
Dressed in a baseball cap, Carhartt jacket, and blue jeans, West stood behind a small podium and a small sign, evidently salvaged from the church, that quoted Joshua 1:9: “Be strong & courteous/Do not be afraid or discouraged for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”
After welcoming the faithful, he suggested, “I think God has a calling for us, and we will see where it takes us.”
Though retirement took us to Arlington, Melinda’s Carlisle County hometown, we lived most of our married lives in Mayfield, where I was born and where we reared our son. Melinda was on the Mayfield High School faculty for 36 years.
Small tornadoes had touched down in Mayfield when we lived there. But damage was limited and, if memory serves, nobody was killed or seriously injured.
So we were shocked at the TV news Friday night. Western Kentucky has had tornadoes, but we’re not Tornado Alley like the Plains states.
It had been years since we had a really severe twister. One of the worst was the 1917 storm that flattened Bardwell, the Carlisle County seat. “We, of the town of Bardwell, had never even contemplated the idea that we might someday be visited by one of these frightful, ghastly storms,” Ran Graves wrote in his old county history book.
Doubtless most Mayfield residents were thinking likewise Friday night.
We were unprepared for the horrific carnage we saw. Smashed buildings, overturned cars, downed power lines, broken and twisted trees and utility poles and shards of shattered glass were everywhere.
The 1880s-vintage, two-story, red brick Graves County courthouse was missing most of its second floor, plus its landmark cupola and clock.
Destruction around the court square and nearby neighborhoods was massive.
“Mayfield More than a Memory,” says a mural on the side of a downtown building that was still standing.
I wept at the ragged pile of bricks, stone ornamentation, and splintered wood where the church and its bell tower had stood since turn-of-the century times.
I remember its big Resurrection window. On Easter Sunday, the whole congregation would turn around, face the magnificent panes of lead-bound stained glass and sing “Jesus Christ is Risen Today.”
I was christened in the church. So was our son, Berry IV, my mother and two uncles.
Stained glass memorial windows decorated the back and both sides of the sanctuary. When we were kids, my brother, Tim, and I wondered about the names on them.
“Jno” looked like the first name of a guy named Stark. We’d never heard of anybody named “Jno,” not knowing it was short for “Jonathan.”
A window on the west side memorialized James W. Hocker. We thought that was an unusual last name.
In 1978, I married his great-niece, Melinda Anne Hocker, in whose late 19th-century family homeplace we live. As best we could tell, at least some of the Hocker window may have survived the collapse of the roof, which buried the sanctuary in debris. Somewhere in the rubble are the old wooden baptismal font and communion table.
Melinda was reared Southern Baptist in Arlington but returned to her Presbyterian roots in Mayfield.
My parents, Sue Vest and Berry Craig Jr., were married in the church on Sept. 20, 1947. We treasure photos of them walking down the front steps as brand-new husband-and-wife.
More than six decades later, their funerals were in the church. We carried the caskets down the same steps.
“After the tornado, the town of Bardwell recovered rapidly and completely,” Graves also wrote. I suspect “rapidly” and “completely” meant relatively.
"Most of the people collected their insurance and rebuilt,” he added. Mayfield is in for months of rebuilding.
Insurance pays only for the loss of a structure and its contents. It cannot replace the loss of the irreplaceable.
“We have a wonderful collection of archived materials from our church’s history,” says First Methodist’s homepage. “The Archives can be found in room #105. There are also two printed histories of the church that can be perused.”
It’s unclear how much of that survived.
Uncertain, too, is the fate of First Presbyterian's framed “roll of honor” that lists all the church members who went off to World War II, including my two uncles. It might have made it; the document was in the Christian Education Building, some of which outlasted the storm.
"We have suffered a major loss in this disaster; there is so much damage to our facilities," the Rev. Joey Reed of First Methodist posted on the church's webpage. He and his wife, Laurinda, were in the church when the tornado hit but are safe.
The congregation, he added, has lost a building, but "WE are the church. You. Your family. Your friends and your neighbors who call Mayfield First 'home.'"
Doubtless, the sentiment is the same at the other churches and all across my hometown. Mayfield has lost many buildings. But the town is the family, friends and neighbors who call Mayfield "home."
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